In the modern-day NHL, scoring a hat trick is a relatively rare and impressive feat. More rare is a night when a player in hockey’s best league amasses five or six points.
So you can imagine, then, why Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler’s astonishing night – in which he scored six goals and an NHL-record 10 points in an 11-4 rout of the Boston Bruins – was the talk of Toronto when it happened Feb. 7, 1976. No other NHLer has scored even nine points before or since, which is why Sittler’s achievement still resonates so strongly even on its 40-year anniversary.
February 7, 1976 turned out to be far from a normal night for the then-25-year-old Sittler, who had been named Leafs captain some five months prior. However, it was also a different kind of day for him before he’d played a minute of the game: after the morning skate at Maple Leaf Gardens, he ate Swiss Chalet chicken in his car as he drove home – and on the way back down to the rink that evening, his pattern of early arrivals was thrown off by teammate Ian Turnbull.
As Turnbull remembers it, it was his turn to be the driver for a group of Leafs who lived just west of Toronto. And on this particular night, he was running late in picking up Sittler, winger Lanny McDonald and fellow defenceman Borje Salming. That would’ve irked Sittler to begin with, as he – unlike Turnbull – was the type of player who loved to be at the rink hours before a game began. And things strangely got worse once all four players were in the car and en route to the Gardens:
“As I recall it, I was late, we had to stop for gas, and I remember the gas attendant was a little overwhelmed with the people in the car,” Turnbull said with a laugh. “He messed up something (with the engine), he botched it all up, and then had to undo what he did. That delayed everything, and when we finally got on the road, Sitt was using all kinds of choice words for me, all the way down the Gardiner (highway) to Church St.
“He was pretty livid by the time we showed up. But the proof’s in the pudding with the night that he had – obviously, you don’t have to be there early, do you? I remember coming in after the game and making a comment to the effect of, ‘Showing up early is overrated’.”
Sittler and his teammates certainly showed up that night, but the success he experienced might not have happened were it not for a choice made by then-Leafs-head-coach Red Kelly. Under pressure from team owner Harold Ballard, Kelly considered breaking up Toronto’s high-octane top line – one that featured Sittler at centre, and skilled forwards Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson on the wings – after the team skated to a 4-4 draw with Washington. But the trio knew they could produce, pleaded with Kelly to keep them together, and soon after provided all the evidence needed to keep the line intact for the next two-and-a-half seasons.
“After the (Washington) game, Red says, ‘We’re not going to put all our eggs in one basket, we’re going to split you guys up’,” McDonald said. “And we went back into his office and begged him, ‘Just give us one week, let us play together for one week’, and he hemmed and he hawed, and he finally agreed. He said, ‘We’ll do it, and we’ll see how it goes for the next week’ – and (Sittler’s 10-point night) was the very next game.”
McDonald netted the first goal of Sittler’s 10-point night – and the first of the game – in an opening period that saw Toronto score just twice and take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission. Sittler assisted on both of those first-period goals, but it wasn’t until the second frame – in which he scored a hat trick and added two more assists to give him seven points after 40 minutes – when he was confronted with his place in hockey history.
“At the end of the second period, that was the first time we knew the record could be broken,” Sittler said. “Our statistician, Stan Obodiac, came into the dressing room and told me I’d tie (Maurice) ‘Rocket’ Richard if I could get one more point. So that was exciting, and there was already lots of excitement in the building before the game – it was the Bruins, an Original Six game at the Gardens on a Saturday night – to build on.”
The second period was also when Sittler’s teammates became aware of what a special night he was having.
“It started out like any other game,” said McDonald, “but then the second period came along, and oh my gosh, if Darryl was going on the ice, (teammates) were looking to see if they could go on with him, because you just knew something was going to happen. And when you’ve already got that many points after two periods, everyone was kind of giddy in the dressing room. Everyone was conscious of where we were at, and encouraging him – ‘Don’t get off the ice, just stay there, we’ll come join you every so often’.”
At that point, Sittler hardly needed the encouragement. When he came out of the dressing room, it took him just 44 seconds of the third period to tie Richard’s record by scoring his fourth goal of the game and giving the Leafs a 9-4 lead. The emotion of the moment washed over him for a second, leading to a memorable visual moment in franchise history.
“It was a pretty goal, but an exciting one, too,” Sittler said. “It was hard to take it all in in the middle of a game.”
“When he scores the goal in the third period, it’s probably one of my favourite pictures of that whole night,” McDonald said. “He’s up against the boards, his hands are held high, he slams himself into the boards. That kind of told it all. And he wasn’t done!”
Indeed, although he needed another nine minutes or so to set his own mark and end Richard’s 32-year reign in the record books, Sittler sent the Gardens crowd into fits of delirium when he scored his fifth goal of the night, beating Bruins rookie netminder Dave Reece (who’d been in net from the beginning of the game) with a gorgeous shot.
Suddenly, Sittler had the record all to himself. And the building and his teammates were beside themselves – all the more when Sittler scored his final goal of the game and reached double-digits in points on an improbable shot from behind the net that ricocheted off the skate of Bruins defenseman Brad Park.
“I think it was surreal at that point,” McDonald said.
“He could do no wrong,” added Turnbull. “In those days we had a team that could get on a roll, and you just knew somebody was going to light it up. There was a tremendous chemistry there. You don’t really think you’re doing anything different, but everything seems to work well. But Sitt could get going, and once he did, you built momentum off it. It was a glorious night.”
McDonald and Salming both finished the game against Boston with four points, Turnbull chipped in an assist, and Thompson added three assists – an indication of how deep and talented that Leafs team was, as well as an example of the damage Toronto’s blueliners could do on offence. That’s something Sittler believes doesn’t get enough credit for when it comes to setting the record.
“You don’t do anything like that without great teammates,” Sittler said. “Ian and Borje, they were great players, and they came up as almost the fourth forward and gave us an out to make a play. They were certainly instrumental in a number of the goals and scoring chances.”
In the four decades that have passed since that night, nearly 39,000 NHL games have been played – but despite the abundance of top-shelf talent such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the closest anyone has got to Sittler’s record is an eight-point performance. Gretzky and Lemieux both made it to eight points on a few occasions, and Sam Gagner is the most recent NHLer to do so (as an Edmonton Oiler in 2012). That said, the game has changed in so many ways – players are asked to participate in systems hockey with little room for roaming, and the quality of goaltending has improved dramatically – that many hockey people are skeptical Sittler’s record ever will be broken or matched.
“I would never say it could never happen,” Sittler said, “but can it happen? Yes. Are the odds of it happening small? They are, but at the same time, who the heck knows? That’s the thing with sports, right? You never know – that’s what keeps sports so interesting.”
“When you think about Gretzky and Lemieux, Crosby and (Steven) Stamkos and Patrick Kane, and they haven’t broken it yet, I’m not sure it’ll ever be broken,” added McDonald. “Very seldom do you ever see eight goals scored in any game, let alone ten goals. It was meant to be.”
“I don’t think it’ll be broken, no,” said Turnbull. “The kids are taught differently. They’e not really gunslingers anymore. They’re chess pawns. They’re not taught creativity, and that’s something we had in our game. We were allowed to be a little more creative. We weren’t quite as structured.”
This is why, if you say the phrase “10-point game” to any current NHLer, they’ll respond with a sense of awe. It’s something that’s occurred just once – with a player in a Leafs uniform making the magic – and it’s a measure of the feat that everyone associated with it still seems as if they can’t quite believe it happened.
But it did.
“Ten points in one night? Some people don’t get 10 points in a season,” McDonald said. “But it was so cool to be part of it. I tell (Sittler) all the time, I got the first goal and the last assist, so if I wasn’t there, he’d have never made it.”